September 27, 2006

Teen "Binge" Drinking on the Rise

Teens gone wild at drunken beach brawls. Adolescents fueled by alcohol, trashing schools, terrorizing private parties, even threatening police. Young people killed in drunk driving accidents. Schools manning breathalyzer machines.

Teenaged drinkers have sparked a slew of headlines in recent months as East End parents, educators and public officials grapple with a growing problem.

The Southampton Youth Bureau has revealed results of a new study which indicate that binge drinking is an escalating crisis not only nationwide, but locally.

According to the Teen Assessment Project 2006, a survey conducted in November 2005 by the Southampton Town Youth Bureau with the cooperation of local school districts, 43% of the 2,276 students surveyed in grades 8, 10 and 12 reported binge drinking in the last month. "The kids tell us when they drink, they drink to get drunk. They're not sipping," said Nancy Lynott, director of the Southampton Town Youth Bureau.

It's a number that's reflected nationwide: According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, more than five million high school students binge drink at least once a month.

Further results of the study are alarming: Of students surveyed, 55% have had at least one alcoholic drink; 25% used marijuana in the last month, 65% spend two to 10 hours a week home alone at home with no supervision, and 37% had engaged in sexual intercourse.

Teen drinking is a crisis with costs to the entire nation. A report released by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine to Congress in 2003 found that underage alcohol use costs the nation an estimated $53 billion annually.

But, according to Lynott, costs to young people are staggering and life-altering. According to assessment results, 50% of binge drinkers reported episodes of depression; 30% have thought about suicide. And, while 63% of non-drinkers had grades in the 90s, only 7% of binge drinkers had grades in the 90s. The bottom line: Alcohol kills more kids than all illegal drugs combined.

Kids in the community, said Lynott, are mirroring their adult role models. "They're drinking at parties, parties where adults are present and know the kids are drinking."

Lynott said the first step toward attacking the problem lies in a collaborative effort between parents, educators, community leaders, law enforcement officials and professionals to stress that drinking under age 21 is not legal; consistency is key. "We give kids mixed messages."

Also critical is adult supervision of youth activities and education about resources available in the community for young people.

Lynott reminds that statistics indicate the younger an individual is when they start drinking, the more likely they are to develop addictions and problems as an adult.

Kim Laube, director of the Human Understanding and Growth Seminars held on Shelter Island to educate high school students about drug and alcohol prevention, said kids are bombarded with messages from the media.

Too often, parents give permission for alcohol, while they would not allow other illegal behavior such as shoplifting or drug use, she said.

Teens are turning to alcohol an outlet. "Kids are walking around with a ton of feelings. Very few kids have a place to really talk about what's going on inside their minds. They want to feel connected."

Audrey Gaines, director for the division of youth services in East Hampton, said the town has taken steps to acknowledge teen drinking, especially after well-publicized incidents this summer. Initiatives include a Parent University 101 that features workshops geared for parents on topics such as Internet safety and talking with teens about substance abuse. Other programs include a youth awareness committee and a youth council.

The best advice for parents, said Gaines, is to "know where your children are, who they're with, where they're going — and talk to them early."

On the North Fork, Susan Toman of The Guidance Center in Southold, has been working to set up a Community that Cares program in Southold. Town Supervisor Scott Russell has also worked to establish a youth bureau. The results of a recent assessment survey in Southold are expected to be released soon.

In Riverhead, several programs are in place to combat teen drinking, including an active SADD chapter and a number of Riverhead Police Department initiatives including a DWI program and an awareness day.

Parents, said Laube, need to take a stand. "A lot of parents want to be their kids' friends. You need to be a parent, not a friend."

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